Video Classroom on a Shoestring

Video conferencing, Web casting, and course management applications are valuable tools for teaching in a distance-learning format. But many of these require hardware, software, funding, and the expertise of an information technology professional or technology-proficient instructor. Is it possible to teach an online course using audio and video without adopting a lot of expensive technology? For one instructor, the answer is yes. In fact, for him, bare bones has become an art form.

Kent Meyer, professor of accounting at California State University, Sacramento, teaches two upper-division distance-learning courses—international accounting and corporate partnerships and estate tax. Each of the courses enrolls up to two dozen students, some located hundreds of miles away. Meyer and project coordinator Rolando Cabiles have developed an inexpensive strategy for using live audio and video lectures in the courses.

The solution involves capturing one-way video, transmitting it via the Internet, and simultaneously using instant messaging to communicate with their students. Meyer and Cabiles use a Logitech QuickCam Web camera to broadcast real-time video and audio of Meyer’s lectures via SpotLife Inc.’s Personal Video Broadcasting service. Enrolled students access the course via a SpotLife password, a standard PC with an Internet connection, a modem, and a free instant messaging ID. Meyer simply sits in front of the camera and lectures. If he wants to display a diagram or photo, he holds it up to the camera. Alternatively, he can send complicated figures to his students via e-mail before or after the lectures.

Meyer has taken technology down to the bare bones for his distance-learning courses. He d'esn’t even use a course Web site. Anything he or his students want to say to one another travels via e-mail. But making sure his students could see him was critical.

“Students want that personal interaction,” Meyer says. “They respond to voice intonation, body language, and seeing a face much better than they do reading text off a screen.” Meyer sought a solution that would be inexpensive—the whole setup cost him less than $100—and easy. Using the lowest technological denominator ensures that all of his students, no matter what their resource level, can access the course.

During the lecture, students can communicate with Meyer directly, or with one other, via instant messaging. Meyer scans the questions and comments as they come in during the lecture and responds to them on the fly. Cabiles assists Meyer by troubleshooting the technology, answering asides from students, and monitoring connections.

Both note that in this format, students are more interactive and more communicative than in a standard course. “This format plays right into the multitasking that we already do in our daily lives,” Cabiles says. “Being able to ask questions via instant messaging takes away the fear and intimidation factor, and we find that students contribute to class much more than they otherwise would.”

Meyer notes another benefit: no additional class prep time. Because he lectures much like he would in front of a class full of students, he d'esn’t have to prepare special diagrams, course notes, or text material. There’s no need to move his course material onto a Web page or into a course management product.

Meyer also sees the approach as a way to reach students around the world who may not have access to the latest technology tools. “It’s a way to broaden distance education to developing countries and anyplace where there are interested students,” he says.

For more information, contact Kent Meyer at prof_meyer@yahoo.com.

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